Green Insulation: Keeping Warm Naturally

Let’s face it—insulation isn’t sexy. It doesn’t come with cool, slick finishes or in an array of pretty colors (although pink isn’t bad). But what insulation may lack in flash, it more than makes up for in its potential impact toward creating an environmentally responsible home. In fact, insulation is the single most important material in increasing a home’s energy efficiency.

Any reduction in household energy consumption directly translates into less pollution produced by power plants. By this definition alone, any insulation could be considered a green product. But there are a lot of new green insulation products out there for you to consider.

Let’s begin with the pink stuff. The most widely used home insulator for the past 70 years is fiberglass batt insulation, popular for its low cost and easy installation. However, as anyone who has ever worked with it knows, you don’t want to breathe or touch the stuff without proper protection. Fiberglass is essentially “glass wool”. Some experts deem the product safe as long as you follow specific manufacture’s instructions. Others argue the release of airborne fibers and use of a formaldehyde binding agent creates reduced levels of indoor air quality. Responding to these claims, fiberglass manufacturers have embraced more green practices by using up to 40% recycled content and offering formaldehyde-free products.

But if you’re looking for something a little more natural, consider cotton batt insulation. Manufactured primarily from old blue jeans, the product is available in R-13 (3.5” thick) and R-19 (5.5” thick) unfaced batts. (R-value is the measure of a product’s thermal resistance) It’s treated with borate to increase pest and fire resistance, and because it’s 100% recycled and organic, there are no issues with diminished indoor air quality.

Cellulose insulation, made primarily from recycled newspapers, is about 80% recycled & organic in content and like cotton insulation, is also treated with borates giving it a Class 1 fire rating. In the event of a fire it will smolder instead of melt, thus releasing less toxic fumes. Cellulose insulation can be blown in dry or wet, however the wet application is generally considered superior due to its ability to reduce air infiltration. The cost of cellulose insulation is also generally considered more affordable than other newer foam insulators.

Spray foam insulation offers to best option for reducing thermal heat loss through air leakage. There are basically two types of spray foam insulation, open cell and closed cell. Open cell, referred to as half-pound foam, is less dense and applied with a water-based blowing agent. Closed cell, also called 2 pound foam, has a much higher R-value per inch but uses an HFC blowing agent for its application. HFC’s are global warming agents, however this chemical is largely contained within the “closed cells” of the foam thus diminishing its environmental effects until its end-of-life. There are also soy-based or bio-based foams offering a certain percentage of organic materials.

Spray foam insulations are typically 3-4 times more expensive, especially closed cell foam. But spray foam also offers the highest R-value rating per inch and superior protection against air infiltration, making it an attractively green energy saver. Spray foams are not DIY projects though; they must be professionally applied.

One final new product to mention is Aerogels. Aerogels may be the best thermal insulators in the world, providing 40 times the insulation of fiberglass. They are made from super-porous silicon foam made up of 99% air, making it translucent while still amazingly strong, light, and insulating. Although arguably, silica foam is not any better for your health than fiberglass, this product is never sold loose – it is always sold in pre-sealed window panels. Using this new product, windows may soon lap walls for superior insulating properties. In the world of design, such innovation could be a game changer.

No matter which product you use, insulating your home packs a lot of bang for your buck. The cost of your investment can usually be recouped in 3-5 years. Better insulation in a home also means downsizing furnaces and a/c units as they don’t need to work as hard. So while insulation won’t have your guests ooing and ahhing over how great it looks, properly insulating your home will save energy for the planet and save you money – money you can then spend on all those flashy finishes.

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